FEW, IF ANY, THINGS MAKE ME HAPPIER than a successful memoir written by someone I like and admire. Perhaps the only thing that comes to mind is if the book is gorgeous, as well. That being the conditions for my happiness, I can only say that I am currently ecstatic to introduce to you The Dutiful Daughter’s Guide to Caregiving: A Practical Memoir by Judith Henry. Oh yeah, and it’s funny as hell. Really. Funny. About caregiving. So I asked Judith to write a piece about finding the funny in memoir. Read on. I think you’ll be glad you did.
A Serious Look at Humor Writing
by Judith Henry
Over the course of developing my manuscript, The Dutiful Daughter’s Guide to Caregiving, I consulted with a very wise woman who happened to be both an editor and teacher of memoir. We would periodically review the chapters that required more work; which ones sounded just right; and what excellent progress was being made. Despite being highly suspicious of praise, I needed the affirmation as much as the critique and she was good at delivering both in a straight-forward manner that resonated with me from the very beginning. During one call, I mentioned another author’s book and narrative style, which was lush and elegant with an impeccable rhythm.
“I’ll never be able to write that way,” I complained. “It’s like I’m drawing stick figures, and she’s painting a Renoir.”
This gifted instructor had probably heard it all before from her students, and I expect, other private clients, as well. She didn’t coo over me as if I were three years old with my first crayon drawing. Instead, her response was, “It’s true her voice is different from yours, but I wonder if she’s able to make people laugh?”
A few weeks after that conversation, at the end of a meeting with my writer’s group for caregivers, I handed out the following month’s prompt and read it aloud to ensure there were no questions. Everyone was asked to think about the ways in which a certain person, place or thing had supported them during difficult times. While the participants all left deep in thought as they tossed the question around in their minds, I remembered the earlier conversation with my writing coach, started connecting the dots, and finally began to take a serious look at the role that humor has played in my life and my writing, especially during the six-year roller coaster ride of caring for aging parents and the twenty-four months that followed their passing, as I captured the experience on paper.
Of course, there were dear friends who lent a willing ear during that time, and they continue to have my love and gratitude, but this kind of assistance was different. My sense of humor became the loyal companion I could always count on. There was never a bad time to hook up. My legs didn’t need to be shaved. No one’s feelings were hurt when my manner was brusque from exhaustion, and I never worried about getting ditched for someone younger, slimmer or more attentive. It was also a given that pink unicorns or rainbows needn’t wait in the wings, since packaging life’s darker moments in candy coating has never been my MO.
When first deciding to share the story of all I’d learned while helping to care for a mother with breast cancer and a father with dementia, there were only two things I knew for sure. One, the book had to be small and light enough to carry and read just about anywhere, including an airport, on a coffee break at the office, or at 2 AM in an ER waiting room. The second was having readers feel like they were getting together with a good, albeit mouthy friend who wouldn’t judge, who understood what they were going through, and who wasn’t afraid to laugh at the sheer absurdities this world delivers when we least expect it.
As a pragmatist and someone who values other people’s time, my book also needed to serve a purpose. So, there were plenty of tips on handling family upheaval, talking to doctors or dealing with grief and loss, but also a liberal dose of humor, which had clearly saved me at times, when nothing else could.
There was the miserable rain-soaked day when I delivered my mother’s last will and testament to the courthouse, while trying not to say one more time, “My mom has died.” Stopped and searched by a security guard, who proudly confiscated a tweezers from my purse, I laughed in his face, and said, “Good job. What a relief to know the chin hairs of Orange County are safe for another day.”
Even my book’s name came out of an anxiety-soaked visit to Orlando one weekend to check on each of my parents. Driving with my head out the car window like a dog on a road trip, I had to find some way to calm down. A stop for coffee helped a little and got me to my dad’s house fifteen minutes later than my, always punctual, 9 AM. Sitting at the kitchen table in an old flannel robe, and checking his watch, he tisked, “Well, well, the dutiful daughter is finally here.” At that point I had three choices. The first was to start crying; the second was to get angry; and the third was to smile, kiss the top of his head and say “Thanks, Daddeo, you’ve given me the perfect title for my book.” I chose option number three.
While some may believe that humor has no place in life and death situations, I respectfully disagree. To me, it can be an act of courage in the face of great turmoil; a way to step back and regain perspective during moments of anger or stress; and sometimes it’s simply another way to mourn.
I’ve finally come to accept that my work may never be considered masterpiece material, and that’s okay. The ability to tell a story or offer advice in a way that makes someone grin or laugh out loud – that’s going to keep me writing until it’s time to type THE END.
The Dutiful Daughter’s Guide to Caregiving: A Practical Memoir, an excerpt
The Caregiver’s Toolbox
Otherwise Known as Your Purse
As you’re quickly discovering, becoming a caregiver gives new meaning to the words “be prepared.” Why this isn’t the Girl Scout motto, instead of the Boy Scouts, I’ll never know. After all, the female of our species is expected to anticipate every situation. Look at our handbags. They’re like leather life-support systems. On an ordinary day, they not only contain keys, a wallet, and a makeup pouch, but also protein bars, bottled water, a cell phone, a damp washcloth in a plastic bag (no wait, that was my mother), and a mini-pharmacy.
And when life changes dramatically, the contents of our purses do the same. So it was for me when, in 2007, my elderly father slipped and hurt his back, and my mother, at 85, was diagnosed with breast cancer.
On any given day, I carried these items and more:
- A mezuzah case without a prayer. The irony was not lost on me.
- A few chips of low-dose Xanax. They eased the anxiety that kept me up most nights, but I could awaken quickly for those 2 a.m. emergency calls from my parents or their caregivers.
- Hastily jotted sticky notes, which sometimes tagged along on the back of my pants as I ran errands. Amazing that no one ever bothered to tell me.
- A tube of Burt’s Bees colored lip-gloss. It gave my tired face a bit of garish color when I needed it.
- Twenty to-do lists. Some were written in my father’s methodical handwriting, but most contained my own illegible scrawl.
- A pound of change for the parking meter at my mother’s rehab center. Twenty minutes for a quarter. About what my time was worth.
- A key ring to make a janitor swoon. It held twelve keys, including those to my office, house, and car; my parents’ houses and their safe deposit box; along with an assortment of scan thingies from Stein Mart and TJ Maxx for retail therapy.
- My cell phone. Instead of salivating like Pavlov’s dogs every time it rang, my body’s response was a surge of adrenaline that left me exhausted. To keep sane, I finally bought a different phone with a whole new selection of ring tones.
- Tweezers, for pulling stray chin hairs that appeared out of nowhere, and always caught the light as I gazed into my visor mirror while sitting in traffic. Who can pluck when everyone’s watching?
- A pocket calendar with laughably small squares. Imagine real life fitting into a one-inch box.
- A brochure for an assisted living facility my mother couldn’t bear to think she might need. I thought of applying, myself.
- A relaxation CD my dear friend Anne sent me. Great stuff, if I only had time to listen.
Judith’s first book, The Dutiful Daughter’s Guide to Caregiving: A Practical Memoir is a salty sweet memoir and how-to about caring for elderly parents. In addition to working on her second book and writing for online publications, she leads a well-loved writer’s group for caregivers, and does presentations on the benefits of expressive writing, how to create a legacy letter for family and friends, and having the last word by writing your own obituary.
She lives in Florida with her cat, Addie Jacob, who says she has a promising career in cat toy design if this writing gig doesn’t work out.
For more information about Judith and her book, go to http://www.judithdhenry.com.
HOW TO WIN A COPY OF THE BOOK
I hope you enjoy Writing Lessons. Featuring well-published writers of our favorite genre, each weekly installment takes on one short topic addressing how to write memoir.
It’s my way of saying thanks for coming by.
Love the author featured above? Did you learn something in the how-to? Then you’ve got to read the book. And you can. I am giving away one copy, and all you have to do to win is leave a comment below about something you learned from the writing lesson or the excerpt. I’ll draw winners at random (using the tool at random dot org) after entries close at midnight Monday, July 27, 2015. Unfortunately, only readers within the US domestic postal service can receive books.